The Magnificent Gates of Seoul

By James B.  Atkins, FAIA, FKIA

The eight gates of Seoul. Image courtesy of KTO NY.

The capital of the Republic of Korea is the modern and vibrant city of Seoul, surrounded by eight mountains, with four “inner” mountains, and divided by the picturesque Han River. The city dates back to 18 B.C. when it was established as the capital of Baekje, one of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea. In 1392 King Taejo, Seong Gye Yi, of the Joseon Dynasty chose the city for his center of government, and it remains today as the world’s second largest metropolitan area and one of the top 10 global financial and commercial centers.

King Taejo’s first priority for his new capital was national security. The city required protection from invasion. The solution was a great wall surrounding the city with eight gates of entry, four great gates generally on the points of the compass, and four small gates in between. The great gates were built for commerce into and out of the city, and the small gates provided access for residents, merchants, soldiers, visitors, and small goods. The gates had great significance, not only for their practical use, but also to satisfy geomantic beliefs, or Pungsujiri, which has its origin from the Korean Shilla Dynasty. The gates were the lifeline of the city, literally and politically, and they served to establish ancient Seoul as a defensible, vibrant center of trade, education, and status.

Today, modern Seoul has far outgrown the 11.3 miles of wall that once encircled and protected the city, and the only gates that appear in tourist brochures are the celebrated great south gate, Namdaemun, and the great east gate, Dongdaemun. Four of the other six gates still exist, but those gates are not as well celebrated. We found cab drivers, the city’s self-appointed tour guides, knew little of their collective existence, much less their locations.

This article will address the magnificent gates of Seoul, their practical yet appealing architecture, and their significance and use by their Joseon creators. We will travel to each existing gate and review its architecture and its place in the lives of the Joseon people. Locating and visiting the gates for this article required some research and effort, since some of the gate locations are not well charted.

The Wall

It has been written that King Taejo was planning to have a wall around his capital city even before Seoul was chosen as the location. The four inner mountains no doubt greatly aided in the wall’s planning as well as the geomantics that the ancient Koreans used to plan such structures. According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, on February 29, 1394, the king said: “A city wall is a country’s fence that keeps out violent enemies and protects the people. Thus, it must be erected.”

The wall follows the natural geography of the terrain, running along the ridgeline of the four inner mountains: Inwangsan to the northwest, Bukgaksan to the north, Naksan to the northeast, and Namsan to the south. Most of the wall remains relatively intact today with the exception of the areas northwest and northeast of Namsan Mountain.

The wall spanned just over 18 kilometers, or 11.3 miles, a seemingly short distance considering today’s vast expanse of the Seoul metropolitan area. The wall is 6 meters, or about 20 feet, at the base, and the height ranges between 3 and 7 meters. The wall was built in 98 sections of 600 paces each. Each section was given a label according to the 98 characters of the Chinese classical primer.

The wall east of the Great North Gate. (All photographs by the author unless otherwise noted.)

After its construction in 1398, the wall underwent extensive repairs in 1422, but in 1899 parts of the wall were demolished to allow the passage of tram lines as the city modernized and expanded. In 1907, just prior to the beginning of the Japanese colonial occupation, portions of the wall on each side of the gate were torn down to allow then-Prince Yoshihito to pass through on his way to visit Seoul, since he refused to pass through the gate itself, as had been the tradition for visiting dignitaries.

Extensive restoration of the wall began in 1975 with the Samcheong section between Changeuimun and Sukjeongmun. The work has continued uninterrupted for a projected completion in 2014. When completed, 8.4 miles will have been restored to its original form, of which 3.2 miles is connected either by bridge or a designation at ground level.

A wonderful description of the ancient wall is given by Percival Lowell in his 1886 book, Choson: Land of the Morning Calm. The book is based on his travels in Korea during the winter of 1883-1884.

“The wall of Seoul is imposing in itself; in position, it is well nigh matchless. In building it, difficulty was ignored and height forgotten. From whatever point you gaze, within the city or without, it is one of the most striking features of a most striking landscape. Rising steadily from the south gate, it climbs the mountain to its very top, and now dips, now rises, as it follows the irregularities of the summit. At one time it disappears behind some nearer spur, and then again comes into view higher still on a projecting ridge. It falls to meet the northeast gate, at the summit of a pass, descending, apparently, only because it must, and starts steeply up again to the high peaks of the Cock’s-comb. There it winds in and out, now lost, now reappearing, till distance merges it with the mountain’s mass. Like some great python, it lies coiled about the city, stretched in lazy slumber along the very highest points—over peaks where it can, along passes where it must.”

Today, the wall has been swallowed up by Seoul’s vast urban sprawl, but it can be seen in many locations as you travel about the area of the original city if you are observant. The replacement of portions of the wall in recent years allows opportunities to see greater portions of the wall at one time, and some of the gates remain connected to the wall in keeping with their original function.

The 98 days–an amazing feat of engineering and construction

The great south gate before its tragic conflagration. Photo courtesy of KTO NY.

When King Taejo made the decision that the wall and gates were an issue of national security for the Joseon Kingdom, the surveying, planning, and execution of the ensuing construction process must have been a sight to behold. The mere logistics of mobilizing 200,000 workers and organizing their work efforts to quarry, transport, and install the stone for such an expanse of wall is nothing less than amazing and would be difficult to replicate today.

At the same time of the wall construction, plans were developed and work was executed on eight gates, some of them very ornate and detailed. While some of the gates were subsequently rebuilt within a fairly short time, perhaps due to their speedy initial construction, the great south gate lasted over 600 years in its original state before it fell victim to arson, and the small northwest gate is approaching 300 years, or about 35 years older than the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The wall is quite impressive, but it is the gates that bring greater excitement to the viewer; first from their grand architecture, and also from their amazing origins and history. They are the footprints of the Joseon ancestors, evidencing their magnificent blend of form and function for these infrastructure elements of the ancient capital city. Although somewhat simple in their construction, they express the grandeur of a kingdom of proud rulers, yet they functioned efficiently and effectively in their use.

The Gates of Seoul

Each of Seoul’s ancient city gates has two names, one is descriptive, indicating the gate’s size and location, and the other is honorific, expressing a desired quality. The observations below will give the descriptive name first, followed by the honorific name.

The great south gate under repair.

Construction of the great south gate, Namdaemun, or Sungryemun, “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies,” was started in 1365 and was completed in 1398. In ancient times every foreign visitor had to pass through the gate in order to enter Seoul. Adjacent to the gate is the Namdaemun traditional market, which has been around since the early 1400s. It continues today, with street vendors who operate from midnight till 6 a.m., offsetting the retail shops open during the day.

The gate was repaired in 1497, and a complete restoration was undertaken from 1961 to 1963. The architect Dr. Sungjung Chough, FKIA, Hon. FAIA, whose invaluable assistance has enabled this article, recalls his work as a student on the gate:

“I remember the year because I participated on the project as a draftsman. The entire structure was dismantled down to the foundation and reassembled. My responsibility was to record the location and the shape of the stones that made up the base structure, one by one. During our work we found documentation that the gate had been previously repaired in 1497.”

The great gate remained intact through six centuries and numerous invasions. The connecting walls were removed by the Japanese in 1910 to allow construction of new streets in keeping with their extensive imposed infrastructure changes. They did not want to honor the gate or the Korean people by passing through it. Today the gate stands in the middle of a busy intersection of streets with no connecting walls.

It was designated as Korea’s number one national treasure because of its age and history, and it is the largest gate built in the dapo style, a style featuring multiple eave supports between each column as opposed to one eave support on top of each column.

A national symbol, it was considered more than a gate, but unfortunately it was destroyed by fire set by an arsonist in 2008. It is currently under reconstruction with scheduled completion in 2012.

The great east gate, Dongdaemun.

The great east gate, Dongdaemun, or Heunginjimun, “The Gate of Rising Benelovence,” was built in 1396. It was reinforced in 1453 and completely rebuilt in 1869 in its present form, a little larger than its original size. Unlike the other existing gates, the exterior includes a wall built in a semi-circle to provide defense for the city. This gate was always more crowded than the others due to the nearby markets, and today the Dongdaemun market is the largest shopping center in South Korea. The reason for the markets located at the two largest great gates was prudent city planning. In ancient times, the goods for sale were brought from outside the city, and the markets just inside the gates prevented congestion within the city itself.

The arched opening, or hongyemun, is in the center of the granite base. Above it is a two-level superstructure five sections wide and two sections deep. The roof is in the Ujingak, or hipped roof, style. The ornamentation is very detailed, and the tongue-shaped ornamentation at the top of the columns is typical of the late Joseon period. The connecting walls have been removed to accommodate city streets, but remnants of the wall to the north can be seen from the gate.

The great west gate, circa 1903. Photo courtesy of KTO NY.

The great west gate, Seodaemun, or Doneuimun, “According to Standard Rule,” was constructed in 1396 and rebuilt in 1711. Travelers arriving from Pyeongyang and Uiju as well as Chinese emissaries used the gate. It was through this gate in 1895 that the Japanese assassins passed to kill Queen Myungsung, Korea’s “last queen.” The Japanese destroyed the gate in 1915 and sold the bricks and wooden materials used in the roof construction. The gate had a rainbow-shaped passageway at its center, topped by a one-story roof surrounded by a low fence. No trace of the gate remains today other than the small plaque nearby denoting the location. However, the gate is scheduled to be rebuilt in its original design in the original location. Completion is anticipated in 2013.

The restoration of the great west gate will complete the reinstatement of the basic framework of Hanyang, the original name of the ancient city. These accomplishments are intended to qualify for a UNESCO World Heritage label. The UNESCO label, since its inception in 1972, has grown to around 900 sites in 145 countries. UNESCO’s objective is to “protect, put to good use and pass on intact to future generations the most precious treasures of nature, art, history and human culture.” When completed, the wall and gates of ancient Seoul will join the ranks of the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae and the Great Wall of China. Four UNESCO World Heritage Sites already exist in Seoul.

The great north gate, Bukdaemun.

The great north gate, Bukdaemun, or Sukjeongmun, “To Rule Solemnly,” was constructed in 1396, but it was never actually used as a great gate. It was built to fulfill the geomantic need for a fourth great gate to the city. It was used as a passageway for the first 18 years, but it was then shut down permanently due to the belief that with the gate open, an evil spirit could easily flow into the city. It was also believed that because of its proximity to the mountains that protected the tombs of the royal families, allowing it to remain open would be an insult to the king since common people would be passing through.

The gate was later reopened, and then permanently closed by the South Korean government after a failed assassination attempt on President Chung Hee Park on January 19, 1968. A contingent of 31 North Korean infiltrators disguised as a South Korean army unit marched through the gate and toward the Blue House, Korea’s presidential residence, coming within one half mile. They were confronted, and gunshots were exchanged. The North Koreans dispersed, and over the next few days all but two were killed. In all, 68 South Koreans died along with 3 Americans during the manhunt.

Coincidentally, the day after the invasion, the USS Pueblo, an American technical research ship, was forcefully captured by North Korea, killing one crew member with the crew tortured and held hostage for almost a year. Unfortunately, some things never change.

The great north gate did not have a tower until one was built of wood in 1976. The gate was reopened in 2006 and is now available for visiting. However, visitors must have identification and fill out a form. Foreign visitors must present passports. Security obviously persists from the 1968 invasion, and a number of military personnel were present around the gate. No photographs were allowed looking north due to the placement of electronic security devices.

Access is via a stairway up the mountainside on the north and can be somewhat challenging physically. However, the trek up the mountain is quite scenic, and the view from atop Mt. Bukgaksan is magnificent. The wall is intact on both sides of the gate for a great distance. As one looks to the east, the wall snakes over the mountain reminiscent of Percival Lowell’s description, above, in Choson: Land of the Morning Calm.

The Small Gates

The small northeast gate, Dongsomun.

The small northeast gate, Dongsomun, or Hyehwamun, “Distribution of Wisdom,” was constructed in 1397. The original name, Hongwhamun, was changed in 1511 due to confusion with the similar name of a nearby palace gate. Dongsomun functioned as a main gate since Sukjeongmun, the great north gate, was always closed.

The gate received Chinese emissaries until it lost status to Seodaemun, the great west gate, and eventually fell into disrepair. In 1744, King Yeongjo ordered the fallen gate tower restored, and a new nameboard created by then-famous calligrapher Jo Gang Ea was installed. The ceiling of the tower gate originally contained a painting of a bird, thought to bring luck.

The gate was demolished in 1928 along with the adjacent walls to make room for the city’s first streetcar. (My mother-in-law expressed fond memories of riding the streetcar to school as a child.) It was reconstructed and reopened in 1998 a short distance north of its original location. The gate is now closed off by a security fence, and public access is available to the area on the north. The wall has been removed on the east side of the gate where a road has been constructed, but the wall on the west side remains and is tall and quite imposing. It profoundly illustrates the great obstacle the wall of ancient Seoul presented to would-be invaders.

The small southeast gate, Namsomun.

The small southeast gate, Namsomun, or Gwanghimun, “The Gate of Bright Prosperity,” was constructed in 1396, and is believed to have been rebuilt in 1422. In addition to ordinary traffic, the gate was used as a passageway for the removal of human remains. Funeral processions passed through to bury their dead outside the city walls. The gate was rebuilt in 1711, but now the only remaining original portion is the stone pavement. The gate as it exists today was rebuilt in 1975 as a part of the fortified wall reconstruction project.

The gate sits on a street corner enclosed by an iron fence that prevents entry. It is immediately adjacent to housing and retail, and children’s toys and clothing are visible inside the fence as if it has been used for a child’s playpen by nearby residents. How noble that the gate continues to provide protection to the youngest of Seoul’s citizens. The wall has been removed on the north side to accommodate a large boulevard, but it remains intact to the south, much of it appearing to be relatively recent construction.

The small southwest gate, Seosomun, or Souimun, “The Gate of Clear Justice,” was constructed in 1396. It was also used to carry the remains of the deceased out of the city in addition to serving as a public passageway. Nearby Seosomun Park is where condemned prisoners were publicly beheaded and their heads displayed on the gate.

When the Catholic faith was introduced into Korea in the late 1700s, the initiative met with significant resistance due to deep rooted existing beliefs. Many Christians were reportedly martyred in Seosomun Park, and a commemorative shrine has been erected there.

The gate was demolished by the Japanese in 1914 in their effort to erase the Korean culture. No trace of this gate remains today, however Seosomun Park has undergone significant recent improvements and now contains 14,000 trees and 10,000 pyeong (just over 8 acres) of open grassy areas.

Small northwest gate, Buksomun.

The small northwest gate, Buksomun, also called Changuimun, “Showing the Correct Thing,” was constructed in 1396. It served as a passageway leading to Bukhan and Yangju. In 1416 the gate was shut down according to geomantic beliefs, which indicated that the gate may cause harm to the king. It was reopened in 1506 and later insurrectionary forces passed through the gate to overthrow the government. The gate was destroyed by fire during one of the early Japanese invasions and rebuilt in 1740 when the wooden tower was added. Restoration work was carried out in 1958. After the tragic great south gate fire in 2008, this gate has now become the oldest existing gate of Seoul.

The wall has been removed to the southwest to accommodate a housing development and to the northeast to make room for a highway. We originally thought that this gate would be as remote as the great north gate but were pleasantly surprised to find that the cabbie was able to deliver us within a relatively short distance from the gate itself after receiving explicit instructions and guidance from my mother-in-law.

Percival Lowell also provides a wonderful description of the gates, again from his 1886 book, Choson: Land of the Morning Calm.

Great north gate doors plated with steel.

“At irregular intervals stand the eight gates. In theory they stand at the cardinal points and their half-way divisions. Practically, they stand where they may. They are as imposing as they are important; and they are among the finest buildings in the city, unless it be contended that they are outside it. For each, though connected with the wall, is, in truth, a building in itself. They resemble houses raised on perforated foundations. So much so, indeed, that as you approach one of them from the top of the wall, you would imagine that you stood on a level with the ground before some house of the better class. You almost forget that underneath you is a solid arch of stone, till looking down you catch sight of the crowd perpetually swallowed up on the one side, and disgorged again on the other. Fitting into this arch, that from above seems a tunnel, are massive wooden gates, four inches thick, sheathed with iron.”

The Cheonggyecheon Water Gate

The water gate under excavation. Photo courtesy of KTO NY.

A ninth gate of Seoul has been referenced by some researchers, but no actual evidence was available until the demolition of Dongdaemun stadium in 2008 to make way for a new park. Excavation unearthed a water gate that was a part of the ancient wall of Seoul. In September 2008 the Jungwon Cultural Properties Institute reported the discovery of Igansumun, a sluice gate for controlling the water flow from Mt. Namsan to the Cheonggye stream.

The gate was reported to be “about as big as a four-story building and wide enough for a couple of buses to pass through.” The discovery of the gate illustrates the sophisticated design and innovative use of the wall and gates of Seoul in the late 14th century. Because of the discovery of the water gate, the opening of the new Dongdaemun Design Park has been delayed until 2013.

The architecture of the gates

When observing the evolution of the architecture of the gates from their original construction through the many reconstructions and restorations, it can be observed that they began with simpler designs. This was the result of the prevailing Neo-Confucianism beliefs embraced by the early Joseon leaders, which favored practicality, frugality, and harmony with nature. However, these beliefs began to fall out of favor by the mid 16th century. As a result, more ornamentation can be observed such as the great east gate, Dongdaemun, which was rebuilt in 1869. This contrasts to the much more simplified design of the great north gate, Bukdaemun, of an earlier period.

An interesting feature of the gates is the ornate tile roof. The roof design is said to have evolved from Chinese architecture with a few variations. Unlike the typically red Chinese roofs, the Korean roofs were more often dark grey, the color of the mud in the rice paddies from which the tile was made. The tile itself is very ornate, with embellishments that evolved from the Unified Shilla period when faces and figures were incorporated into the tile.

Japsang at the small southeast gate, Namsomun.

Another design variation is the Korean roof curves upward in a more sweeping curve, beginning at the ridge, as compared to the Chinese roof that has a straight gable from the ridge with a slight curve upward at the lower edge. The result of the sweeping Korean design is much more dramatic, especially with elaborate and ornate painting of the eaves. Many theories abound on why the Korean roof has its sweeping curves, from a philosophy toward emulating nature, to more practical reasons, such as pre-stressing the support members to withstand accumulating snow in winter and improve insulation qualities.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of the Korean roof is the “Japsang.” These are small animal “spirit” figures that line the roof at the ridges of the hipped roof corners. These statues are intended to guard the structure against evil spirits and ghosts, and they can be seen today on all of the existing gates of Seoul. They are adapted from similar elements in earlier Chinese architecture, but Korean Japsang is more ornate.

The quest for the gates—research and expedition

The gates have fascinated me since I first learned of the ancient city and visited the Great South Gate on my first trip to Seoul. I expressed my desire to find all of the remaining gates, and in keeping with the Korean proverb, the son-in-law is a guest for 100 years, my wife and her parents happily accommodated me. They also happen to love me very much.

When the search for the gates began to prove more difficult than expected, and not even the cabbies knew of their exact location or existence, the elusive gates became my family’s quest as well as mine. My mother-in-law contacted the Seoul city officials with the Ministry of Culture only to be informed: “The person who knows about the gates is off today.” Undaunted, she tried again the next day with greater success, and she was given more precise directions to the gates. We visited a bookstore and purchased a detailed map of Seoul, and my wife, father-in-law, and mother-in-law carefully located and charted each gate on the map.

Armed with our geographic logistics, we set out to enrich the cabbies of Seoul with many fares by visiting every existing gate. Carefully explaining the intersection to which we desired transport, my mother-in-law relentlessly kept at the driver with corrective instructions until we arrived at our charted destination. On many occasions, we would turn a corner and, presto! There was the gate looming proudly before us.

Until the gates are more celebrated, you may have to resort to the same stringent measures to locate and visit them. I have a feeling that in the not-too-distant future, the gates will become a tourist destination that rivals the five palaces. At least, I hope so.

The future of the gates—Is the phoenix rising?

With the unfortunate destruction of the great south gate Namdaemun in 2008, there appears to be a heightened awareness by the Korean government of the importance and the vulnerability of their ancient treasures. On our visit to the gates we encountered “no smoking” signs and we noticed plentiful fire extinguishers that appeared to have been recently placed. Although a reconstruction effort to replace the west gate is already in progress, and many recent advances have been made to repair and restore the existing gates and the wall, since the tragic fire there seems to be a growing overall commitment toward the restoration and preservation of Seoul’s antiquities. Perhaps without this heightened commitment, the recently discovered water gate at the Dongdaemun Stadium site may not have received as much attention.

Ironically, the deranged arsonist who set fire to Namdaemun and took away Korea’s number one beloved artifact may have given the people a great gift in return. Many ancestral treasures have been lost since the systematic destruction of Korean culture by the Japanese early last century. More were neglected by the Koreans themselves in the name of progress and growth. Opportunities for restoration and renewal of the gates have historically taken a backseat to more popular urban enhancement projects. Perhaps the phoenix, the bulsajo, will rise from the ashes of Namdaemun, and the gates of Seoul will once again occupy a position of prominence in the city.

The completion of Dongdaemun Design Park with the preserved water gate Igansumun is scheduled for 2013, the restoration of the great south gate Namdaemun should be complete in 2012, and the great west gate Seodaemun should make its reappearance in 2013. This will bring the status of the gates of Seoul to a higher level of restoration than they have seen for over a century. But will the magnificent architecture of the gates be displayed and promoted as much as the five palaces and other highly touted Korean tourist attractions?

It remains to be seen if the great gates of Seoul will once again be allowed to facilitate trade and commerce and occupy the exalted position of prominence given them by the Joseon ancestors. Promoting them collectively as an attraction and installing better wayfinding signage would be a good start that would return great dividends, but action must be taken. As the old Korean saying goes, “it is time to stop licking the outside of the watermelon” and give attention to these great gates at the level they deserve.

Meanwhile, six of the gates remain available for viewing and exploration. I can’t guarantee you that you won’t have as tough a time as we did in finding and visiting them, but as you can see, they do exist, and they can be found. If you feel adventurous, you don’t give up easily, and you’re up for some aerobics, the magnificent gates of Seoul, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Joseon Dynasty, patiently await you. Meanwhile, good luck out there.

Copyright 2011 James B. Atkins. Reprinted with permission.

Jim Atkins is an architect in Dallas who occasionally writes about architecture. He is married to Sook K. Kim, PhD, a psychologist and native Seoulite, and he has been recognized as a fellow by both the AIA and the Korean Institute of Architects. His visit to the gates would not have been possible without the help of his parents-in-law, Mr. Yeo Jin Kim and Mrs. Jung Hee Kang, a true native Seoulite because she was born within the ancient city walls. Accuracy of historical dates and many facts are the capable work of Dr. Sungjung Chough, FKIA, Hon. FAIA, principal, Ilkun Architects and Engineers.

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